When Andy and I were engaged, we got a lot of good advice about how to “combine” aspects of our former, single lives in our new roles as husband and wife. We filled out worksheets on expectations regarding finances, divvying up chores, splitting time for family holidays and even closet space. Yet there was one very important component of our married life that was left unexplored in these pre-Cana sessions: prayer.
To be fair, we were asked to talk about how faith would fit into marriage (this was, after all, a Catholic preparation program), but beyond simple questions like whether we would go to Sunday mass or whether we expected to raise children in the Church, we weren’t asked to think very much on the matter. No one prompted discussions for us on whether we would try to carve out time to go to weekday masses or adoration together, or when we would make time for confession. We weren’t asked if saying prayers together was a priority, and if so—which prayers? At what times of day? How would we handle praying with children? Would we read the Bible together? If it is important to explore and communicate our expectations for who washes the dishes, isn’t it far more important to explore and communicate our expectations for strengthening our relationship with the very source of Grace that bound us together in the first place? I hope our experience is atypical, but my suspicion is that it was not.
I’m sure you’ve heard the catchy phrase: “The family that prays together, stays together.” But the word “prayer” encompasses so many different things and except for participation at Sunday mass, the Church does not have any other universal mandate of prayer. This is because the Catholic Church believes and teaches that the Holy Spirit imbues each member of the Body of Christ with different “Charisms” or gifts, which enable us to be nourished by and to serve the community in different ways. Over the centuries, this has manifested not only at the individual level, but also at a larger communal level. At the beginning of the Church, there was no such things as a “religious community” of brothers or sisters who would live separately from the world. This vocation developed over time, as Christians with similar dispositions and goals decided to band together as unmarried persons, like a family. They lived and worked in common, drawing on their shared charisms, which in time gave birth to the plethora of religious communities we have today.
At a basic level, we can divide them between “active” communities and “contemplative” ones, though all actives are also called to be contemplative and all contemplatives are called to action. Some examples of Contemplatives, who tend to dedicate more of their time to silent prayer, are the Carmelites, Carthusians and Benedictines. Some examples of Actives (though most call themselves Active-Contemplatives) are the Dominican Friars and Sisters, the Franciscans and the Jesuits. Within these groups are more nuanced expressions of charism. For example, the Benedictines’ motto is “ora et labora” (prayer and work) which is lived out in community, while the Carmelites tend to focus more on solitude. The Franciscans have a special charism for the life of extreme poverty, whereas the Dominicans have a special charism for study. To reflect and concretize the special character and charism of each of these communities, Rules of life and prayer were written. It is these Rules which define and challenge each new group of Benedictines, Carmelites and Dominicans in their shared vocation. Yet these communal expressions of charism are also home to a wide variety of personalities and talents even within the group, so that they serve as a microcosm of the Church at large.
St. Paul writes: “For as in one body we have many parts, and all the parts do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ and individually parts of one another. Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us exercise them.” (Rom 12:4-6a) As the physical ears have one particular function in our physical bodies, the “ear” of the mystical body has a particular function as well. In a religious community, ears commit to The Life of an Ear. Through their shared charisms, they grow together in holiness and build up the Church.
But what happens to the charisms and function of the ear when it suddenly finds itself inextricably and sacramentally bound to a foot?
One option is to say that even though they are united in marriage, the ear does not have to consider the foot when performing its function. The ear can simply keep being an ear and the foot can keep being a foot with no regard for one another. But can you imagine a marriage in which the spouses did not take the spiritual needs and talents of one another into account? Better yet, I think the challenge and the gift of marriage is to help the foot begin to listen, and to teach the ear to dance.
Let me get concrete here:
When Andy and I got married, we had a few ideas about how Christian spouses and families should pray together. Of course, Sunday mass was the most important and unmovable piece, but what about the rest of the time? We knew that we should say grace before meals and we had heard many experienced families say that doing a communal Rosary every night was practically a requirement for raising faithful children. So when our first daughter was born, we figured we should probably get in the habit of saying the Rosary, too.
It was a miserable failure. We were both in graduate school at the time and were simply exhausted. We tried desperately to say a decade of the Rosary while giving Baby Girl her nightly bath, but our hearts just weren’t in it. There were plenty of excuses to be made, so we made them. It just didn’t feel “right,” so we felt like Catholic Failures because we couldn’t manage to eke out a little prayer that for so many people seemed to come bursting forth joyfully.
A few weeks into this disastrous attempt at community prayer, I had what felt like a total revelation: “You know, we don’t have to say the Rosary,” I said. “We could say a prayer that we like better. We could do the Divine Mercy Chaplet.” My husband’s face lit up. This was a prayer that we had often recited together before getting married—in fact, we said the chaplet right before Andy had proposed. Why hadn’t we thought of this before? Thus began an interesting discussion. We didn’t talk anymore about what we thought “Good, Faithful Catholic Families” were Supposed to Do, but rather we focused our conversation on What Prayers We Liked to Say and decided to use that as a springboard for writing a Family Rule of Prayer.
By analogy, we decided to think of each other as co-founders of a new religious community: The Valenzuela Family. Like religious founders, our Rule would be based on our own particular charisms. It would share certain concepts and activities with other “rules,” but it would be totally unique because it would be totally “us.” God didn’t ask us to get married so that we could be just like every other Good Faithful Catholic Family. He asked us to get married so that we could be This Particular Catholic Family. And so it is for every couple.
So, if you are a family looking to combine your prayer life in a way that uniquely works for you, I suggest doing the following:
1. Each person make an independent list of what prayers/service activities you especially like.
2. Next, make a list of what you think your particular gifts are.
3. Make a list of what your (future) spouse’s gifts are.
4. Compare your lists.
When you write your rule, you should try to include all of the prayers/activities that you have in common. These are your foundational elements. Next, make space in your rule for individuals to engage in their own special forms of prayer. If she wants to go to Eucharistic Adoration every week, write it in! He is always welcome to join, but his vocation is to support her in this devotion so it might mean taking the kids for an extra hour each week. In addition to prayer, try to include an “apostolate” or active component to your family rule. It’s important to focus on feeding ourselves through prayer, but Marriage is a “Sacrament at the Service of Communion” (CCC #1534) and its function within the Church is to serve the building up of the entire Body. Our spiritual food must be used to nourish others as well. Finally, be sure that your rule is fluid. Revisit it often and don’t be afraid to change certain things to accommodate your lifestyle. Unlike a religious community that must stick to the vision and spirit of the founder(s), your little family community will change rapidly based on how many children you may have, their ages and their personalities, whether you have a demanding work schedule with a lot of travel time or whether you work from home and can be very flexible, etc.
Should you be interested, it took me and my husband about an hour and a half to really discuss and solidify our vision for our “Family Rule.” I know that if we had been asked to write this as part of our marriage preparation, the rule would have looked very different, but I still wish we had thought to do this back then! As I look at this rule, I am struck by the things which we have been able to implement and make part of our routine, and which things we have neglected. It is a good reminder that we should always be striving to improve our relationship with one another and with God—and a great reminder that the Spirit is working through us and desires to use our family to build God’s Kingdom in a very specific way. So I offer you here our rule of prayer in the hopes that you might compose your own as well! At the end are a list of further resources to get you started.
THE VALENZUELA FAMILY RULE OF PRAYER
1. Mass is central to our week. When possible, we should attend daily mass as a family.
2. Always grace before meals, no matter where we are, even if said quietly to ourselves.
3. Night prayer (can we do psalm tones?)
4. Nightime prayers with the children:
iii. Our Father
iv. Hail Mary
v. Family Hymn
5. When we have the space, we’d like to set up an icon corner and family altar which would also contain the lectionary open to the day’s readings
6. Offer things up for the souls in purgatory
7. Prayer before travel
8. Chaplet of Divine Mercy on Saturday evenings
9. No meat on Fridays.
10. Morning offering or some other prayer to start the day
11. Cultivate a sense of praying while at work, focusing on the Jesus Prayer
12. A Crucifix in every room
1. Get Andy involved in more choir opportunities
2. Pick a charity of the month. We would add them to our petitions AND make a donation, whenever possible.
3. Keep $5 gift cards for Dunkin’ Donuts in our wallets to give to beggars
4. Start a mens’ group at the parish
5. Christina should teach theology whenever possible (religious ed?)
Resources just for YOU!
Examples of different rules:
For help discerning your charisms:
Mrs. Christina Valenzuela, OP is a wife, mother of three and a Lay Dominican. She holds a master's in theology, works as the Director of Faith Formation for grades 6-12 at her parish and blogs at www.summamomma.com.